WASHINGTON -- Five months after the Senate Intelligence Committee released its gruesome report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, someone is finally paying steep professional consequences. Except it’s not the former torturers. Or their superiors. Or even the CIA officials who improperly searched the computers that Senate investigators used to construct the study.
It’s the person who helped expose them.
Alissa Starzak, a former Democratic majority staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, played a critical and controversial role during her time on the panel: She was a lead investigator for the torture report, and was one of two staffers involved in an ongoing feud over damning internal CIA documents obtained by the committee.
Currently serving as deputy general counsel for the Defense Department, Starzak was nominated last July to serve as general counsel to the Army.
But the critics of the torture investigation -- namely, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) -- are orchestrating a quiet campaign to stall Starzak's nomination.
Burr confirmed to The Huffington Post that he is working to keep the former investigator from getting approved by the Senate.
Opponents of the investigation already succeeded in stifling Starzak’s nomination once before. After first being submitted by the White House last July, Starzak easily cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee -- then led by Democrats -- by voice vote in December, even though the explosive feud over the torture report was unfolding at the time. But her nomination was held up by Senate Republicans after she passed through the Armed Services Committee.
After the nomination expired at the conclusion of the last Congress, the White House resubmitted the longtime government lawyer for the general counsel post in early January. By then, however, Republicans were in the majority. And now, the handful of GOP lawmakers familiar with Starzak’s role in the torture report drama are planning to make her and her former colleagues pay.
“I think she’s always been a little bit of leverage,” said one lawmaker familiar with the controversy over Starzak’s nomination, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive committee matters. “This is an opportunity to figure out what happened ... And I don’t know any other way to do it.”
Starzak, 41, has had a fast rise through Washington’s legal ranks. After a handful of private sector jobs following her graduation from University of Chicago Law School, she made the jump to a government job as a CIA lawyer in 2005.
After a stint at the agency, in 2007 Starzak became a counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, then under the control of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Two years later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) took the reins of the committee and, along with then-ranking member Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), announced what was initially supposed to be a bipartisan review of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program.
Republicans quickly withdrew, saying the study would be a partisan witch hunt, which left Feinstein’s staff to go it alone. Starzak was one of two staffers -- the other, Dan Jones, is still with the intelligence committee -- tasked with leading the massive investigation.
Locked away in a secure CIA facility in northern Virginia, Starzak and Jones led a small team of committee staffers as they sifted through millions upon millions of secret documents related to the agency’s torture program.
Starzak, though, never saw the study through to its protracted, complicated completion. She left the panel in 2011 to take a job at the Defense Department as deputy general counsel for legislative affairs, where she continues to work while awaiting Senate confirmation to the army post.
Still, Starzak’s impact on the final product was significant. In December, on the day the committee released the executive summary of the torture report, Feinstein personally called attention to Starzak for her role.
“I want to thank the Senate Intelligence Committee staff who performed this work. They are dedicated and committed public officials who sacrificed, really sacrificed, a significant portion of their lives to see this report through to its publication,” Feinstein said in a floor speech. She went on to thank several staff, including “Alissa Starzak, who began this review as co-head and contributed extensively until her departure from the committee in 2011.”
Starzak’s colleagues agree that she was instrumental in the behemoth research phase of the report.
But her true legacy arguably can’t be found in the study’s 6,900 pages. Rather, Starzak’s real impact has to do with the discovery of a separate document, an explosive set of files that has fueled one of the most controversial spy agency dramas in recent memory. That document, much to the CIA’s chagrin, is still locked in a Senate safe. And the spies’ allies on Capitol Hill are intent on holding Starzak hostage until they get answers.
Sometime in 2010, in a windowless CIA basement, Starzak and Jones found this particular file while combing through documents related to the torture program. The documents were made available to the Senate staffers in a shared electronic reading room provided by the CIA.
At the time, the file -- an internal review of the agency’s torture program that confirmed the operation had been badly managed and ineffective -- didn’t stand out, according to committee accounts. It was encouraging, since the agency’s findings seemed to align with what the investigators themselves were discovering. But it was one file in a trove of literally millions. And the markings on the file, which indicated it was a deliberative draft and privileged, were not different from those on other documents.
Starzak and Jones saved the documents in this file, which would come to be known as the Panetta Review, to the walled-off Senate side of a computer system being shared by the intelligence committee staffers and the CIA. As the investigation continued, the documents remained there, not inspiring any particular controversy until mid-2013, two years after Starzak had left the committee.
It was in June 2013 that the CIA, now under the leadership of John Brennan, sent the committee its official response to the completed torture study. The agency largely defended its use of torture -- in stark contrast with what the Panetta Review said -- which tipped Senate staffers off to the document’s importance.
After the CIA issued its response, Senate investigators sat through dozens of hours of meetings with agency staff in an effort to resolve the discrepancies between the official CIA line and the Senate’s findings. But those meetings yielded little. Newly aware of the relevance of the Panetta Review -- as it backed their findings and undermined the agency’s official response -- staffers slipped the document back to their secure committee spaces sometime in late 2013.
That move sparked what would ultimately become a constitutional crisis between the CIA and the Senate. After learning the staffers had somehow gotten their hands on the Panetta Review, Brennan ordered agency personnel to sift through the walled-off Senate computers, breaching a prior agreement under which the CIA had promised not to access those drives. The agency maintained that intelligence committee staffers had already broken that agreement by removing the Panetta Review documents from the facility in the first place.
In early 2014, the spies referred the matter to the Justice Department, alleging that the staffers had improperly accessed agency computers when they first came across the Panetta Review documents in that basement in 2010. The DOJ said in June 2014 that it hadn't found grounds to open an inquiry. By then, Starzak was long gone.
Critics are now holding up Starzak’s nomination -- and say they are willing to kill it entirely if need be -- to get more answers about the Panetta Review. Specifically, they say, they want the committee’s Democratic staffers to provide more information about how the file was discovered in 2010 and how, in late 2013, staffers slipped the printed documents back to the committee’s secure office spaces, in apparent violation of an agreement with the agency.
That Starzak was not around for the latter doesn't necessarily mean that her confirmation can't be used to fill in the critical blanks about an investigation that she was a part of -- and that Republicans have slammed from day one.
“Clearly it looks like … [she] knew that this document existed, knew that people were reading it and as a counsel didn’t try to keep people from doing it,” the lawmaker familiar with the controversy said. “[I want] information that fills in the blanks of what happened. And she clearly knows something.”
The lawmaker conceded that Starzak may not have been the one who actually took the document, but argued that she should have been more proactive in keeping her colleague’s eyes off of it. In her role as a lawyer, the lawmaker said, Starzak should have been "questioning whether somebody breached their ethics" when the Panetta Review documents were viewed.
But committee Democrats don’t think that argument holds water.
“Any claim that staff should not have read the Panetta Review is baffling,” said Feinstein, who was not aware of the specifics of the current effort to hold up Starzak’s nomination. “All of the documents reviewed by the committee -- including the Panetta Review -- were provided by the CIA, were accessed on computers made available by the CIA and were located using a CIA search tool. Many of those documents were marked internal or deliberative, the very sort of CIA communications the study was tasked with reviewing. In fact, the CIA’s official response to the study, which Director Brennan himself handed me in June 2013, was marked deliberative."
"The notion that we should not have read these documents defies common sense," she added.
Republicans on the panel have made no secret that they disapprove of the way the committee’s Democratic staff conducted themselves, including their handling of the Panetta Review.
In the Republican rebuttal to the intelligence committee’s torture report, a handful of GOP members -- including Burr -- slammed Democratic staff for wrongly accessing and taking the Panetta Review documents.
Even after the CIA admitted it had indeed breached the Senate’s walled-off computer drives, committee Republicans continued to encourage a separate inquiry into staff conduct, run by the Senate’s Sergeant-At-Arms office.
That inquiry, though, ended inconclusively, leaving Republicans’ questions unresolved. Starzak’s nomination, it seems, has emerged as a chance to get answers.
For Starzak's defenders, though, this is inching close to an abuse of the confirmation process.
“Alissa Starzak’s nomination should not be held up over the Panetta Review. Any senator with questions about how Senate Intelligence Committee staff found the Panetta Review or what they did with it should read my March 2014 floor speech or ask me,” Feinstein said.
Those who worked with Starzak say that she was not privy to the controversial removal of the Panetta Review from the CIA facility in 2013, since she had left the panel more than two years prior.
“She was not informed or part of that decision,” a Democratic aide who worked with Starzak said. “Even if you think Senate staff did something wrong, she was gone before any of that happened.”
According to The Washington Post, it was Jones who printed out portions of the Panetta Review and brought it back to the committee’s secure office spaces in late 2013. The Huffington Post has subsequently learned that Jones advocated within the panel to preserve the committee’s own copy, though it's unclear to whom he made this appeal. Moreover, Jones only took some, not all, of the Panetta Review documents -- the rest of the review’s thousands of pages remain on the shared computers in that CIA basement.
Starzak may wind up being one of the bigger professional casualties of a broader campaign against the panel’s Democratic staff that has been waged behind closed doors since the Panetta Review controversy originally came to light.
The first strike came in a December 2014 article fingering Starzak as one half of a duo that allegedly hacked into CIA computers in order to obtain the Panetta Review in 2010. Negative media coverage followed in a handful of conservative outlets. The apparent campaign spooked the panel’s Democrats, who quickly realized that their critics, now in the majority, were out for blood, one U.S. official familiar with the Intelligence Committee said earlier this year.
The media reports, though, only foreshadowed bigger problems for the report’s investigators.
In the immediate aftermath of the study’s release, the Democratic staffers were hailed as oversight heroes, willing to stare down the CIA and go against the White House's wishes. But as the public spotlight faded, new realities set in. Government job offers dried up. It became more difficult, if not impossible, to get confirmed for nominated positions under the new Republican-run Senate. Most committee staffers still refuse to talk, afraid of retribution or being branded as leakers, which could put their security clearances at risk.
And then there is the personal toll. The intelligence panel’s investigation itself was a nearly six-year undertaking that took thousands of hours and put strains on staffers’ families and relationships. After the CIA’s criminal referral to the Justice Department, there was growing concern over legal costs, which the staffers would likely have to take on themselves.
For the moment, the chaos has quieted. Jones and several of his colleagues who worked on the torture report remain on the panel’s staff list, and Starzak continues to work at the Pentagon while quietly awaiting Senate confirmation.
Starzak’s former colleagues, though, say the Republicans’ effort isn’t worth the cost.
"Small win for GOP, but a big loss for our country. Alissa is a bright legal talent and I was fortunate to work with her,” said Eric Chapman, a former Democratic staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee who worked with Starzak on the report. “It is a shame that it appears her prior work on the [intelligence committee] is preventing the advancement of her nomination.”
The exact dynamics of the hold that originally kept Starzak from confirmation when she was first nominated in July 2014 are unclear, though a source familiar with the matter says the effort was led by former Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who served as the intelligence panel’s ranking member until he retired in January. It’s unclear whether Chambliss’ hold was ever officially registered with leadership, and requests for clarification from former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office were not returned.
Currently, the hold is stuck in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where its chair, John McCain (R-Ariz.), is holding Starzak and several other civilian nominations hostage for reasons completely unrelated to the torture probe.
Burr can’t register an official hold until Starzak is voted through McCain's committee, and it could not be discerned how widely his intentions are shared among his fellow Republicans on the intelligence panel.
It's unclear when the logjam will break. But word has started getting around Capitol Hill about the intelligence committee chairman’s campaign.
“We’re aware that Sen. Burr and other senators have had concerns about Miss Starzak,” said an aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee, who added that no confirmation hearing had been scheduled for Starzak. The aide declined to discuss the matter further.
The Pentagon declined to make Starzak available for an interview.
"We are hopeful for the timely and favorable consideration of Ms. Starzak's nomination to be General Counsel of the Army,” Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost said. “The Senate has a long history of working in a bipartisan, principled fashion to consider DoD nominations."
The CIA, meanwhile, has cleared itself of any wrongdoing in the spat over the torture report -- and has continued to challenge the Senate investigators’ claims that torture was ineffective.
The Justice Department declined to investigate the CIA’s apparent breach of Senate computers, and has additionally said it won’t reopen any investigation into the agency’s abuse of torture tactics.
With little appetite from the White House to press for accountability from the spies -- either for torture or for the apparent snooping into Senate computers -- it seems the only people being forced to suffer consequences are the ones whose names Feinstein announced on the Senate floor last December.
“They have worked days, nights, weekends for years, in some of the most difficult circumstances. It’s no secret to anyone the CIA did not want this report coming out,” Feinstein said in that powerful speech. “I believe the nation owes them a debt of gratitude.”
Burr’s office declined to provide further comment on the record for this story. The White House declined to comment, and McCain’s office did not respond to a request for comment.